Jim Crace

"The Pesthouse"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross OCT 5, 2007)

The thing that is key to understand when going into this book is that it's all about tone and feeling, and not about details or logic. To a certain extent, the reader just has to accept the world that Crace has presented, and not try to figure it out. This was a big struggle for me as I started it, since most stories (be they books or films) set in a post-apocalyptic world either explain how the world got that way, or use the mystery of the "why/how" as a major plot device. Here, Crace simply posits a greatly depopulated America some two-hundred years in the future (according to an interview I read) which has been thrust back into a kind of early 19th-century existence, only with almost no technology and no written language. There are intimations of a widespread plague, and some kind of permanent crop failure, but just hints, nothing concrete. Elements of this make no sense at all -- especially the loss of technology and writing -- but you just have to go with it.

The book follows two people through this landscape where there is no government or rule of law beyond rudimentary local customs and practices.

Franklin is a young man from somewhere out West, who has left the homestead to make his way to the East Coast, where there are apparently ships that take people to a better life in Europe. Margaret is a 30ish spinster whose family, according to custom, kicks her out of their fairly prosperous town when she manifests symptoms of the plague. The two are thrust together by fate, and embark on a perilous quest eastward for a better life. Their journey is filled with the expected trials and tribulations (bandits, betrayal, slavers, separation, physical hardship, etc.), but the story is told in such a way that it is clear the two will end up back together by the end. One flaw in the book is that Franklin is left far too underdeveloped to really engage the reader as a co-protagonist, especially in comparison with Margaret, who is fully realized.

In that sense, the story might be considered too gentle. Yes, bad things happen to Franklin and Margaret, but this version of America isn't quite menacing enough to invest the story with any real suspense over the outcome.

Indeed, at times, it's hard to really understand why people want to leave and head for the ships. Large swathes of the country they pass through seem perfectly fine, with farming and animal husbandry. And indeed, this greatly undermines the story's conclusion, which I won't give away, but is not exactly surprising. Ultimately, Crace seems to have written this book as a way of expressing optimism. It's definitely worth reading for his beautiful command of language and unexpected turns of phrase, especially when it comes to physical description, just don't expect it to hold together as a dystopian vision of the future.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews


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About the Author:

Jim CraceJim Crace was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1946 and was brought up in north London. He earned his BA in English Literature at London University in 1968 and worked for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Sudan as an assistant in Sudanese educational television. Two years later he returned to the UK, and worked with the BBC, writing educational programs. From 1976 to 1987 he worked as a freelance journalist for The Telegraph and other newspapers.

He began writing fiction in 1974. He became Writer in Residence at the Midlands Arts Centre and in 1983 he directed the first Birmingham Festival of Readers and Writers. He published his first novel in 1986, which won the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, the David Higham Prize for Fiction, and the Guardian Fiction prize.

He was awarded the E. M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1992 and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999.

Jim Crace lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children.

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